Andy Farrell believes Ireland can still win the RBS 6 Nations title but after a chastening afternoon of wasted opportunities at Murrayfield he knows the national team needs to regain and then sustain its ruthless streak for the rest of the Championship.
The aggressive defence and clinical attack that rocked the All Blacks and Australia three months ago seemed a distant memory for long periods of Saturday’s painful 27-22 defeat to Scotland.
Ireland shipped three tries in the first 28 minutes and then, having clawed their way back into a 22-21 lead, blew the chance to close out the game as chances went abegging and more sloppy defending delivered the winning penalties for the buoyant Scots.
Yet defence coach Farrell was part of an England management set-up that in 2013 was beaten to the title in their final game by a Wales side which had lost its opening round fixture at home to Ireland.
As Ireland yesterday completed the reviews of the Scotland reverse and turned their focus on Saturday’s game against Italy in Rome - with some of the Irish squad also paying their respects at the funeral of former Leinster team doctor Professor Arthur Tanner – Farrell was underlining to the squad the 2017 Championship was still up for grabs.
Asked if it was still winnable, the defence coach replied: “100%. You know what this team is capable of, and so do we. Has the challenge got a little bit harder? Yeah, but it’s not a challenge that frightens us. It’s one that has to excite us, and I’m sure it will.”
The intensity was noticeably absent from Ireland during Saturday’s opening half and closing minutes, much to Farrell’s displeasure. The Englishman has called on the men in green to reacquire their zest for the craft. “We should love defending,” he said. “There are all sorts of reasons, you could break it down technically, tactically etc; a few sloppy decisions here, there and everywhere that allow you to be out of the game or back in the game. Again that last 10 minutes we slacked off and allowed them back in. I ain’t taking away from that second-half performance, it was fantastic because we challenged them at half-time and they rose to it. It was a big mountain to climb and they climbed it pretty hard. If we could get that ruthless streak for 80 minutes we are going to do well in this competition.”
In eight games since Farrell signed on with the IRFU, Ireland conceded as many tries, 23, as they scored in four wins and four losses dating back to last summer’s series in South Africa and the Scotland loss underlined one important key to success at the highest level of Test rugby that Ireland have still to attain.
“It’s consistency. That’s international football, it’s consistency of application across the board and understanding what ruthlessness looks like. They are all good teams, every team is tough and if you’ve not got an edge then it is very hard to put teams away. If you have an edge you can put teams away and we have got it in us, we just have to keep educating and keep drawing it out.”
Part of the ongoing education will focus on defence in the wider channels, where Ireland conceded twice to Scotland’s outstanding full-back Stuart Hogg in the first half last Saturday.
“It’s the hard part of the game to defend, of course it is, in those wide channels, and we work hard with outside backs - anyone can be on the outside, backs in general, and even forwards - that they understand what it takes, what type of decision-making it takes to make sure we apply ourselves properly there.
“Obviously it’s a work in progress. In the first-half you would think we hadn’t done much work on it. You can look at Scotland’s defence and they were narrow at times, but they still managed to stop us in the first half.
“You look at our second-half performance, and you could say our spacing wasn’t quite right, but we still solved the problem.
“That’s why I keep going back to appetite and mood. It ain’t just about spacing and getting across the field, because if you space out too much they’ll run through the middle of you anyway. So there’s all sorts of reasons.”
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